Robert Sarver, owner of the NBA’s Phoenix Suns and the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury, has been suspended one year and fined $10 million by the NBA as a result of an investigation into the Suns franchise.
The NBA announced the punishment Tuesday, saying the investigation found that during his time with the Suns and Mercury, Sarver used the N-word at least five times “when recounting the statements of others.”
There also were “instances of inequitable conduct toward female employees,” the NBA said in its statement, including “sex-related comments” and inappropriate comments on employees’ appearances.
The NBA commissioned an investigation after ESPN published a story in November 2021 detailing allegations of racism and misogyny during Sarver’s 17 years as owner.
While the NBA stated that Sarver “cooperated fully with the investigative process,” league sources told ESPN’s Baxter Holmes and Adrian Wojnarowski that he was unaccepting of the idea that he deserved a one-year suspension and a $10 million fine for his behavior. The punitive part of the process became largely acrimonious, sources said.
The investigation, led by New York-based law firm Wachtell Lipton, found that Sarver “engaged in conduct that clearly violated common workplace standards, as reflected in team and league rules and policies.”
“While I disagree with some of the particulars of the NBA’s report, I would like to apologize for my words and actions that offended our employees,” Sarver said in a statement through the Suns. “I take full responsibility for what I have done. I am sorry for causing this pain, and these errors in judgment are not consistent with my personal philosophy or my values.
“I accept the consequences of the NBA’s decision. This moment is an opportunity for me to demonstrate a capacity to learn and grow as we continue to build a working culture where every employee feels comfortable and valued.”
The Suns said in a statement that they are “committed to creating a safe, respectful, and inclusive work environment that is free of discrimination and harassment.” They added that “at the direction of senior leadership,” they have “strengthened” their culture and “focused on creating a workplace where everyone feels included and valued.”
The investigation included interviews with more than 320 current and former employees as well as Sarver, the NBA announced. It also examined more than 80,000 documents and other materials, including emails, text messages and videos. The report was made publicly available online.
“It’s barely a slap on the wrist and shows us the league truly doesn’t stand for diversity, equity or inclusion,” a former staffer who spoke to ESPN for the initial 2021 story told ESPN. “I’m grateful to have the validation after being told I was insane, a b—- and being dramatic. That definitely lets me breathe a little.
“But I’m angry. The league failed us when they had the opportunity to stand behind its values.”
A current staffer, who also spoke to ESPN for the initial report, said, “I am so f—ing mad. So are many others.”
During Sarver’s tenure, the investigation found that he:
- On at least five occasions “repeated the N-word when recounting the statements of others.”
- “Engaged in instances of inequitable conduct toward female employees, made many sex-related comments in the workplace, made inappropriate comments about the physical appearance of female employees and other women, and on several occasions engaged in inappropriate physical conduct toward male employees.”
- “Engaged in demeaning and harsh treatment of employees, including by yelling and cursing at them.”
The release noted that the investigation “made no finding that Mr. Sarver’s workplace misconduct was motivated by racial or gender-based animus.”
The Suns granted access to human resources records and thousands of internal emails, the sources said. Specialists from Deloitte, a global accounting firm headquartered in London, and from Kirkland & Ellis, a Chicago-based law firm, were also involved in the investigation.
NBA commissioner Adam Silver said in the statement, “The statements and conduct described in the findings of the independent investigation are troubling and disappointing. We believe the outcome is the right one, taking into account all the facts, circumstances and context brought to light by the comprehensive investigation of this 18-year period and our commitment to upholding proper standards in NBA workplaces.”
Silver continued, “I am hopeful that the NBA community will use this opportunity to reflect on what this great game means to people everywhere and the values of equality, respect and inclusion that it strives to represent. Regardless of position, power or intent, we all need to recognize the corrosive and hurtful impact of racially insensitive and demeaning language and behavior. On behalf of the entire NBA, I apologize to all of those impacted by the misconduct outlined in the investigators’ report. We must do better.”
The $10 million fine is the maximum permitted by the NBA, and the funds will be donated to organizations “addressing race and gender-based issues in and outside the workplace.”
During his suspension, Sarver may not:
- “Be present at any NBA or WNBA team facility, including any office, arena, or practice facility.”
- “Attend or participate in any NBA or WNBA event or activity, including games, practices, or business partner activity.”
- “Represent the Suns or Mercury in any public or private capacity.”
- “Have any involvement with the business or basketball operations of the Suns or Mercury.”
- “Have any involvement in the business, governance, or activities of either the NBA or WNBA, including attending or participating in meetings of either league’s Board (and their associated Board committees).”
Sarver must also complete a training program focused on respect and appropriate conduct in the workplace.
The Suns and Mercury organization must also fulfill a series of requirements for workplace improvements set forth and monitored by the NBA. These requirements include:
- “Retaining an outside firm to evaluate and make recommendations with respect to workplace training programs, policies and procedures, and hiring and compensation practices — with a focus on fostering a diverse, inclusive, and respectful workplace.”
- “Conducting regular and anonymous workplace culture surveys and responding to survey results with specific action plans.”
- “Immediately reporting to the league any instances or allegations of significant misconduct by any employee.”
- “For a period of three years, providing the league with regular reports related to steps taken by the organization to address these requirements.”
- “Following league direction for remediation/improvement of workplace issues if/as they arise.”
In interviews with the Wachtell Lipton lawyers, most of which were conducted in person, over the phone and via videoconferencing, Suns employees confirmed a range of allegations published in ESPN’s November story, introduced others and provided documents, including emails.
The investigation also substantiated instances of “workplace misconduct engaged in by Suns employees that were not directly related to Sarver and a lack of proper organizational policies and controls.” It found instances of “racial insensitivity, mistreatment of female employees, inappropriate commentary related to sex or sexual orientation, and disrespectful communications.”
It also found that the team’s human resources department was “historically ineffective and not a trusted resource for employees who were subjected to acts of improper workplace conduct.”
The league’s investigation marked the third of its kind centered on a team owner since Silver became the NBA commissioner in 2014 — with all three cases being led by Wachtell Lipton.
Phoenix Suns – History and all
Phoenix Suns, American professional basketball team based in Phoenix. Established in 1968, the Suns play in the National Basketball Association (NBA) and have won three Western Conference titles (1976, 1993, and 2021).
The Suns’ first seasons were moderately successful, and the team showcased the talents of “the Original Sun” Dick Van Arsdale and future Hall of Famer Connie Hawkins. In 1976, a 42–40 Phoenix team featuring longtime franchise favourites Alvan Adams and Paul Westphal went on a surprising postseason run in which the “Sunderalla” Suns pulled off upsets in the first two rounds to reach the NBA finals, where they faced the Boston Celtics in a dramatic six-game series. The finals were highlighted by a triple-overtime shootout in game five, but the Suns were overpowered and fell in the sixth game. In 1977 the Suns drafted Walter Davis, who would go on to set the franchise scoring record during his 11 years with the team.
The Suns traded for point guard Kevin Johnson in the middle of the 1987–88 season and signed free agent forward Tom Chambers in the off-season. The two would form the core of a reinvigorated team that advanced to the conference finals in both 1989 and 1990, the first 2 of 13 consecutive playoff berths for the franchise. In 1992 Phoenix traded for perennial All Star Charles Barkley in an effort to secure a title. Although Barkley played well enough to earn the NBA’s Most Valuable Player (MVP) award his first year in Phoenix, the team fell to the Chicago Bulls in the 1993 NBA finals. Phoenix failed to advance to the finals again during the remainder of Barkley’s time with the team, and the Suns entered into a rebuilding mode at the turn of the 21st century.
The team drafted high school phenomenon Amar’e Stoudemire in 2002 and reacquired point guard Steve Nash (who was originally drafted by the Suns) in 2004. Nash’s up-tempo playing style perfectly complemented the skill sets of Stoudemire and forward Shawn Marion, and the Suns transformed into an exciting high-scoring team. The team’s offensive firepower was not enough to propel it past the conference finals, however, and the Suns traded for powerful centre Shaquille O’Neal during the 2007–08 season in an effort to develop a championship-calibre defense. The presence of O’Neal was not enough to propel the Suns past the first round of the playoffs, and he was traded away in 2009. A young Suns team rebuilt around Nash and Stoudemire made an impressive run in 2009–10 before losing in the Western Conference finals to the Los Angeles Lakers.
Stoudemire signed a free-agent contract with the New York Knicks the following off-season, and the Suns entered a period of nonwinning campaigns. The Suns surprisingly rebounded from their dire stretch in 2013–14 by adding 23 wins to the previous season’s total to finish with a 48–34 record, landing just outside playoff qualification in a historically strong Western Conference field. However, the turnaround was short-lived, and, after a slight downturn the following year, the Suns finished the 2015–16 season with the fourth worst record in the NBA (23–59), the first of three consecutive 20-win seasons that established Phoenix as one of the worst teams in the NBA.
Behind sharpshooter Devin Booker, the Suns nearly made the playoffs following the 2019–20 NBA season. That improvement paled in comparison with that of the following season when a young Phoenix team—having traded for superstar point guard Chris Paul in November 2020—jelled under the guidance of head coach Monty Williams and posted the second best record in the league in 2020–21. The Suns then stormed through the Western Conference playoffs to earn the franchise’s third appearance in the NBA finals. There the team took a 2–0 series lead over the Milwaukee Bucks only to lose four consecutive games and narrowly miss out on its first NBA title.